April 25, 2012  10:30 AM

Specialty coffee industry expo brings the world to Portland

From crop to cup. Specialty coffee is as much about the journey as it is the dark, nut-brown brew, (preferably) hand poured and served up in a white porcelain cup at your favorite local coffeehouse.

Preparing specialty coffee

Pour over coffee brewing, Portland Roasting Coffee Company.

In late April, the Specialty Coffee Association of America's 24th annual exposition and symposium moved into the Oregon Convention Center to tell the story of that journey with help from almost 10,000 coffee farmers, exporters, roasters, brewers, retailers and baristas from 40 countries and five continents.

While it was the first time in the 24-year history of the event that Portland was chosen as host city, participants more than made up for their past absence by generating a citywide economic impact of $6.8 million, according to Travel Portland.

"The coffee industry is big business," says Mark Stell, founder and managing partner of Portland Roasting Coffee Company, coffee supplier for the Oregon Convention Center, "and (Portland’s) coffee culture is second to none."

The optimal mix of place and product to deliver a double shot to Portland's economy.

The lure of specialty coffee

Specialty coffee is both a burgeoning niche market within the coffee industry and a distinctive coffee beverage, notable for its depth and complexity of flavor.

Ask anyone staffing a booth on the convention floor of the SCAA expo to define specialty coffee and responses will likely touch on one of three themes: coffee distinguished by a unique set of flavor profiles, the special geographic microclimates where it's grown, and the tradition of the coffee farming families.

From grower to miller to exporter to roaster to coffeehouse to customer – specialty coffee's chain of care is what sets it apart from the mass-produced variety available on every other corner of most cities in the Northwest.

That's no small part of the appeal.

According to the National Coffee Association’s annual survey on consumption habits, specialty coffee accounts for $13.65 billion in sales, one-third of the nation’s $40 billion coffee industry.

Beyond the character of the bean, the draw of specialty coffee is in the preparation. Growing around that slow, decidedly intentional art is a thriving marketplace of coffee accessories, roasters, wholesalers, retailers and, of course, coffeehouses.

Which makes Portland's microbrew, artisan food, do-it-yourself craft culture the perfect environment for the coffee industry's largest gathering in the world.

You would think.

Green bean coffee importer

Green bean coffee importer Kath Mulingtapang at InterAmerican Coffee.

Outgrowing the largest convention center in the Pacific Northwest

Given the global scope of specialty coffee, the host city for the annual SCAA expo has typically been an international travel hub. Seattle has hosted the event twice.

Advertised in the expo guide as the biggest annual event yet for SCAA, early press had Ric Rhinehart, association executive director, saying it was unlikely they would be back to Portland, citing the Oregon Convention Center as not big enough for the growing conference.

"(The SCAA) said they could never have it again in Portland due to the growing size of the association," says Stell. "Yet it was the biggest show they've ever had because it was in Portland."

Convention center spokeswoman Stephanie Soden says while it isn't the largest event the convention center has ever hosted, it’s one of the two largest it will see this year.

Cindy Cohn, show director for SCAA, wasn't quite so quick to close the door on a return to Portland in the future.

"Portland was a wonderful host for SCAA’s expo and symposium," says Cohn, "and given coffee’s prominence in and around this city, we’d certainly consider it again for possible return."

The sticking point for Cohn was less the size of the convention center and more the lack of hotel capacity close by – a hot-button issue for the last two decades among local hotels and officials from Metro, Portland, Multnomah County and the Portland Development Commission.

"It would definitely help if there were better hotel offerings on the (Oregon Convention Center) side of the river," says Cohn, "and frankly, a rejuvenation and clean up of the neighboring area."

See also: Convention center hotel discussion shifts to private sector, smaller incentives (Jan. 18, 2012)

Director of Antiqua Coffee

Luis Pedro Zelaya, director of the Antiqua Coffee Producers Association, Guatemala.

Lasting economic impact

Regardless of the future destination of the SCAA's flagship event, the enduring economic impact of the conference on the Portland region is in the business generated that will bring industry professionals back.

"I sell a lot of coffee here in Portland," says Luis Pedro Zelaya, director of Antiqua Coffee, the Antiqua Coffee Producers Association, based in Guatemala. "The expo is good for exposure and to generate new business."

Zelaya comes to Portland regularly on coffee business given that many of the new, small roasters and retailers in the area don't have the budget to travel.

"We're here to educate. We want them to know the quality that's available (in the Antiqua region) and what good coffee tastes like."

One coffee producer's experience in Portland times 10,000 industry professionals looking to grow their business, and the economic impact to the region extends well beyond four days in April.

Peggy Morell can be reached at 503-797-1542 or peggy.morell@oregonmetro.gov. Follow Metro on Twitter @oregonmetro.

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